Ban on hand-held signs very likely violates First Amendment, U.S. appeals court rules

‘Portable, handheld signs still are a rich part of the American political tradition’

By: - June 29, 2022 1:35 pm

Protestors gather at the Historic Florida Capitol building following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturns abortion protections under Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. A Fort Myers Beach ordinance seeking to ban such portable signs violates the First Amendment, a federal appeals court has now ruled. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

A Fort Myers Beach street preacher is entitled to an injunction against a town ordinance that prohibits the display of portable signs, a federal appeals court has ruled, citing the First Amendment.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concluded that, even though the ordinance doesn’t discriminate against any viewpoint, it still forecloses a “venerable form of speech.”

“[P]ortable, handheld signs still are a rich part of the American political tradition and are one of the most common (if not the most common) methods of free expression. The ban on these signs leaves the residents of Fort Myers Beach without an effective alternative channel of communication; it very likely violates the First Amendment,” Judge Stanley Marcus of Florida wrote in an opinion handed down on Tuesday.

The town enacted its sign ordinance seeking to limit visual blight, according to the opinion, also signed by judges Jill Pryor and Britt Grant, both of Georgia. It requires permits to display a variety of signs with exemptions for real-estate or open-house, garage-sale, and other temporary signs.

It bans another 26 types of signs, including portable ones, defined as “any moveable sign not permanently attached to the ground or a building.”

As the court summarized, “a Fort Myers Beach resident may not hold a sign by hand, he may not put a sign in the ground if it is taller than 18 inches, he may not display his sign on his car, and he cannot place any signs in a public place. Short of a bullhorn and running his voice hoarse, our Fort Myers Beach resident has precious few, if any, alternative channels of communication.”

Police issued a warning to street preacher Adam LaCroix in October and a citation in December after he and members of his religious group held signs on a public sidewalk. He drew the citation personally even though he was not holding a sign at the time, but because members of his group were, according to the opinion.

“Although the record does not tell us precisely the dimensions of the sign LaCroix held nor its exact message, we know that LaCroix said he shared his ‘religious, political, and social message’ which ‘is one of hope and salvation that Christianity offers,’” the opinion says.

Local TV station WINK reported complaints that LaCroix has disrupted businesses by using a bullhorn and “disturbing signage” while preaching on the streets.

“The signs are meant to get people’s attention, to get them to think about the dangers of these things that we do preach against, sins like abortion or sexual [im]morality or drug use,” Lacroix told the news organization.

The town cancelled the citation but LaCroix sued anyway, asserting the right to carry portable signs in the future. A federal trial judge refused to grant an injunction blocking enforcement of the ordinance against him, but the appellate judges concluded the trial judge got the law wrong.

‘Rich tradition’

“The rich tradition of political lawn signs perhaps is surpassed only by America’s history of marches and rallies dotted with handheld signs and placards of every imaginable description and covering every conceivable political message,” the court said.

“Images of demonstrators holding portable signs immediately spring to mind: the March on Washington, the Women’s March, the 2000 presidential election protests in Dade County and Tallahassee, the Black Lives Matter protests in nearly every city in the country, the Tea Party protests, the Women’s Suffrage March, and many more.

“All of them involved people carrying portable signs. And all were easy to create and customize. If the town’s prohibition on carrying all portable signs were to stand, all kinds of expressive speech protected by the First Amendment would be barred,” they continued.

“The long and short of it is that the government cannot foreclose so fully so traditional a medium of expression,” they wrote.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.